Microbiome and Epigenetics – Transforming human biology and changing the way we care for our skin.
by Dr Barbara Brockway
Skin Diligent was born after 4 years of research and study of the burgeoning fields of microbiome and epigenetics.
Most scientific discoveries are like little forward (or even backward) footsteps, which gradually increase our understanding. Occasionally however, a huge scientific-penny drops as the sum of these little steps reaches a tipping point of knowledge and reveals a new truth. This new truth can be a powerful instrument, a new method or scientific law, which changes human history.
Just imagine you are back in the 17th century and Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek lets you look down his microscope at a drop of pond water. Suddenly, for the first time, you see many tiny busy creatures all invisible to the human eye. The microscope was a window to a new world and the major force in the birth of microbiology and our understanding of diseases. Its applications have undoubtedly changed lives and, over 350 years later, the microscope is still a fundamental piece of equipment in many labs.
Leeuwenhoek's microscopes showed us a completely new micro world. Today, DNA technology and genomics are taking us so much further and uncovering monumental new truths, challenging traditional thinking and generating exciting fields of research including the microbiome and epigenetics.
Guided by the results of growing microbes on agar plates and in other media, it was once believed that the skin supported just a dozen or so types of microbes. In 1976, Kligman and colleagues published the then accepted wisdom that ''The native skin microflora being simple, and the same organisms found in all areas although in vastly different numbers''. By 2007, scientists knew that the skin microbiome was far from simple. DNA technology had amplified, identified and quantified an enormous number of different bacteria, fungi and viruses from swabs taken from our skin. It was soon recognised that these microbial communities had strong effects on skin health.
Your skin supports a complex microbiome composed of thousands of different microbes. We now know that the composition of your microbiome is unique and dynamic. Its microbial populations ebb and flow in response to the external environment and to changes in your skin.
Our microbiome is an ecology that acts as our essential invisible protective shield. It can quench the damaging effects of harmful substances from the environment, while remaining hostile to opportunistic invasive microbes. As with all ecological systems, a healthy microbiome is rich in many different species, which are busy interacting with each other and, in the case of the skin microbiome, interacting with our skin.
Skin problems can arise when the balance of these different microbial species starts to change, and a few species become overwhelming. This is known as dysbiosis. Major population imbalances in the skin microbiome can trigger inflammation, redness, blemishes etc. It is now clear that the traditional approach of targeting the bad microbes such as C. acnes is wrong. Far from curing the problem, the removal of key species will upset the ecology and can lead to dysbiosis and so make the situation worse.
The new approach to caring for our skin involves working in harmony with our microbiome and rebalancing cases of dysbiosis. And this is the Skin Diligent approach - their products nurture and encourage microbiome biodiversity while supporting the needs of skin. In this sense, they are a trailblazing cosmetics brand.
Diet and lifestyles become especially important when considering Epigenetics. The Greek prefix epi- in epigenetics implies "in addition to" our genetics. Put simply, epigenetics refers to the additional molecules added to or associated with our genetic DNA, which control how our genes are put into action. Consider that, identical (MZ) twins share the same DNA, yet they are not completely identical. Also, the nuclei in nearly all of your cells contain your same unique DNA sequences, yet your cells can behave differently.
Your skin cells for example, look and function very different from your liver cells. These differences are due to the epigenetic changes that control how your DNA (genes) are expressed in each cell-type. Epigenetic changes start very early in the embryo and build up as we age. They can be influenced by environmental pressures, hence the importance of lifestyle and diet. At the molecular level, epigenetic changes can be equivalent to 'off-switches', 'on-switches' and even to adjustable 'dimmer switches'.
Some epigenetic changes are transient while others are permanent. They can be transferred when cells divide. For example, the epigenetic changes that determine a cell is a skin cell, are passed on to the next generation of skin cells, every time a skin cell divides. A few epigenetic changes are even inheritable between generations, allowing for a molecular memory to be passed on to children and grandchildren.
“The most important concept of epigenetics is that you can take control of your genes,” Prof. Trygve Tollefsbol, Senior Research Scientist University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Actives and Nutrients
The field of epigenetics is making us look more closely at how cosmetic actives and food nutrients effect gene expression (both on the expression of our own genes and also on the genes in our microbiome). For example, the function of a cosmetic active and nutrient such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is commonly thought of as an antioxidant, but vitamin C is far more than its 'chemistry'. It is an essential nutrient that cannot be replaced by a similar antioxidant. Using the new DNA techniques, we can understand why. Vitamin C up-regulates the expression of certain proteins, some of which are responsible for the initiation of essential immune responses.
Since 2011, when the ''epigenetic diet'' was first termed, cosmetic actives and food nutrients have been screened for their effects on gene expression. The bioactive molecules in our food that have positive health effects through modifying gene expression, include molecules such as isothiocyanates in broccoli, genistein in soybean and quercetin in berries and including red onions and kale.
Like the microscopic creatures living in pond water, the microbiome and epigenetics have always been there, we just needed the techniques to reveal them. And now that we know their importance to skin health and can take control, we see Skin Diligent changing the way we care for our skin, supporting from inside and out.
Dr Barbara Brockway
Independent Consultant to Skin Diligent
Fellow Member and Trustee of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists (SCS)